Demystifying Math: What Is Number Sense?

Learn how to understand number sense, and why building this foundation is so important in your child's math development.

By Jennifer Hogan
Nov 11, 2017



Demystifying Math: What Is Number Sense?

Nov 11, 2017

What is number sense? As a teacher, I’ve been asked this question over and over again by many parents. To answer, I talk about the importance of it and why your children need to build strong number sense, but many parents don’t feel comfortable with the topic. It's not a term they're familiar with or one used when they learned math. Plain and simple, number sense is a person’s ability to understand, relate, and connect numbers. 

Children with strong number sense think flexibly and fluently about numbers. They can: 

  • Visualize and talk comfortably about numbers. Number bonds are one tool to help them see the connections between numbers.
  • Take numbers apart and put them back together in different ways — e.g. breaking the number five down several times (such as: 5+0=5; 4+1=5; 3+2=5; 2+3=5; 1+4=5; 0+5=5 and so on), which helps your children learn all the ways to make five.
  • Compute mentally — solving problems in their heads instead of using a paper and pencil.
  • Relate numbers to real-life problems by connecting them to their everyday world. For instance, asking how many apples they've picked at a farm. ("Andy picked 5 apples. Amanda picked 2. How many apples did they pick in all?") 

Number sense is so important for your young math learners because it promotes confidence and encourages flexible thinking. It allows your children to create a relationship with numbers and be able to talk about math as a language. I tell my young students, numbers are just like letters. Each letter has a sound and when you put them together they make words. Well, every digit has a value and when you put those digits together they make numbers!

Here are some ideas for promoting number sense in a first grader: 

  • Estimating to bring math into your child’s everyday world. Estimate the number of steps it takes to get from the car to the house or how many minutes you have to wait in line at the grocery store.
  • Model numbers in different ways. Seeing numbers in different contexts really helps your children connect with numbers. For example, looking at numbers in a deck of cards or identifying numbers on dice or dominoes without counting the dots.
  • Visualize ways to see numbers. Every day I ask my students to visualize a number and tell me what they see. Your child will see numbers in different ways. Celebrate all the different ways and encourage her to think outside of the box. An eight can look like a snake or a 10 can be thought of as a baseball and bat.
  • Think about math with an open mind. Instead of asking what is 6+4, ask, "What are some ways to make 10?" This allows for more flexible thinking and builds confidence with knowing more than one answer. Or, you can also ask “Can you make eight with three different numbers?” or “What is 10 more than 22?”
  • Solve problems mentally. Instead of relying on memorization, encourage your child to use mental math (calculating problems in his head). So, if you know 6+6=12, then you know 6+7=13. He can use his double fact (6+6) to help find a harder fact (6+7) and build on concepts he already knows to think about problems. 

Strong number sense helps build a foundation for mathematical understanding. Focusing on number sense in the younger grades helps build the foundation necessary to compute and solve more complex problems in older grades. Building a love for math in your children begins with building an understanding of numbers.

Featured Photo Credit: >© stray_cat /iStockphoto

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